Well, no.

Usually we don’t want the honest answer.  As writers, we don’t want to hear that our “perfect” manuscript is still in need of a great deal of work.  As moms, we don’t want to hear that our skin is squishy and we have gray hair.  (Yes, I’ve heard that and much more, as I apparently have one foot in the grave.)

My Youngest has a knack for telling it like it is–in his mind.  At five, he can be somewhat excused for this behavior.  Espcecially when he doesn’t mean any harm.  It doesn’t help that I laugh– he has the most sincere and charming way about him.  And if I really look at it from his point of view, it’s as much about him as it is about those he comments on.

As an example: Last night we attended DD’s choir concert.  Part way through, he leaned into me and said, with the utmost sincerity, “It’s amazing that an old grandma like that can play so fast.”

In his own way, he was paying the pianist (who, incidentally, is not an old grandma) a very sincere compliment.  To him, he was commenting on the fact that he could never hit all those keys and make such beautiful music.  (And no, Pam, it wasn’t you!  Your compliment was given in a dreamy voice, “Mrs. K is so talented.”) 

In defense of him, our perch from the upper level did not provide the clearest perspective.  Also, as I’ve mentioned before, my body is falling apart in his eyes.  But that’s because he’s five.  His body is young and fresh.  His world is vibrant.  Everyone older than his big brother is OLD. 

And the older we get, the more we learn to temper our versions of reality.  We realize that calling it like we see it can hurt feelings, even if the intention is good.  In time, Youngest will say, “Wow, she is an amazing piano player.”  Which is exaclty what he meant the first time around.  Just in different words.

How does this impact us as writers?  It gives us a fresh perspective on giving and receiving critiques.  It allows us to temper the way we phrase things without compromising the meaning.  As the critiqued, it should teach us that everyone has a different opinion and that we need to listen to what is intended, not always how it is said.

Sometimes in life we hear things we really don’t want to hear.  Even if we specifically asked for an opinion.  (Honey, do these pants make  my butt look fat?  Never mind, don’t answer.)  Writers, in particular, share this affliction.  We ask for critiques–which is hard in the first place–and put ourselves out there for someone else to judge. 

It’s easy to take critiques personally.  It’s easy to focus on the negative and ignore the positive.  It is extremely easy to get defensive and withdraw from the process. Yet if we walk away from this post believing that most commentary is given out of love or respect, we can better focus on the critique itself, and not necessarily the way it is given.

We can also learn to frame our words in a way that helps rather than hurts.  We can give specifics.  Playing a fast piano can translate into a novel that has good flow.  Squishy skin and gray hair can signify the excess use of adjectives and adverbs.  Talent can mean good character development. 

The best critiques are the ones that say, “I liked the way you used transitions to carry me through the novel.  You did a nice job with the flow and nothing felt abrupt or out of place.  However, since I know word count is important, you may be able to tighten up some of your passages by eliminating extra adverbs.  I specifically noticed the use of “suddenly”.  But that’s okay, my word is “that.”  It pops up everywhere!  I particularly liked the way you developed the antagonist in this story.  Making him a vet who really loved the animals he saved made him so real to me that I almost hated to hate him.”

Those specifics mean something.  It helps us learn our strengths and weaknesses.  And, it reads much better than this, “I liked the story and the antagonist, but your word count is way too high for an editor to ever touch this manuscript.”

In essence, they say the same thing.  One is just more useful and less hurtful than the other.

Fellow scribes: Share your best and your worst critiques in terms of helpfulness.

My fave: a little smiley face by certain words or phrases.  It lets me know that my humor is working where I want it to. 

My least helpful critique was for an entire middle grade manuscript.  In its entirety: That’s nice.


*If you want to read a professional opinion on critiquing, check out Maeve Maddox.

10 responses to “Honestly?

  1. Great information as always! I liked Maeve Maddox’s article too.

    I’m still learning about the critique process, so I’m always looking for tips . . .

    • Michelle, I love getting critiques. I always come out a stronger writer for them. Giving them can be a little daunting as I never want to hurt feelings or cut someone’s dreams short. It can be a challenge to balance sometimes. But I love it.

      Whenever you’re ready…

  2. I’ve only ever offered my stuff online for crits. My face reveals far too much emotion for me to do it in person… yet. One day I’ll get there. I’ve been lucky enough to only have helpful crits so far – honest & specific.

    • Jemi,

      Those are the best, honest and specific. Without those two elements, a critique doesn’t provide much insight into our strengths and weaknesses. Lucky you, it sounds like you have a good process with good critters.

      I hear you on the face thing. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel offended. However, I think those are the times when it is in our best interest to pay close attention!

      Keep it up!

  3. jmartinlibrarian

    Best critique?

    “Cut out anything that doesn’t move your story forward. Proportion is key.”

    Worst Critique: “The use of a semi-colon is inappropriate in fiction.”


  4. I haven’t really gotten to the critique stage with my manuscripts, at least not lately. My best “critique” isn’t really a critique – it was a scribbled note on a short story submission to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (it might have been Alfred Hitchcock’s magazine – it’s been so long since I submitted anything!) and it read “Almost, but not quite. Try us again.” Alas, I got bogged down with things like motherhood and a full-time job and the criticism below, and never did get back to them!

    My worse? My ex-husband (he wasn’t ex at the time), who isn’t a reader, read one of my short stories and said something about how I was trying to be high falutin’ or fancy (it wasn’t exactly that, but something similar – I am now taking it as a good sign that I can’t remember the exact wording! At the time, his comment pretty well near crippled my writing.)

    • Belle,

      So many thoughtless comments can make such an impact on our success as writers. I agree that it is a good sign that you can no longer remember the exact wording. Not like the Ellery Queen rejection which seems to be cemented firmly in your mind.

      And, BTW, Ellery Queen has high standards, so getting a comment like that back is awesome.

      I understand about the Real Life intervention regarding writing. The great news is that you persevered despite the lousy critique and have moved forward to a place where you feel comfortable enough with your writing to post it in a blog. That takes courage and is a sign of taking yourself seriously.

      I’m glad you’ve moved on from the hurtful comment or I wouldn’t have “met” you!

  5. By the way, your son sounds much older than five!

    • Oh, yes. He’s wise beyond his years in so many ways. My last, my most difficult and my most intriguing. He has so much to offer in such different ways. And he certainly keeps us on our toes!

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